SHOCKtober Movies: 13 Ghosts

13 Ghosts-posterSynopsis: When an absent-minded professor’s family gets their furniture taken away (again) because of inability to make payments, it is just in time for their young son’s birthday. Well, Buck Zorba (Charles Herbert) makes a wish that his family will get a house and furniture no one can take away. As he does so, a creepy wind pushes through the open windows, fluttering curtains and blowing his candles out for him. Within seconds, a telegram arrives bidding paterfamilias Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) to come to the offices of Ben Rush (Martin Milner). Is this about some kind of prosecution? Actually, it is a benny instead of a slap: The family has acquired the house of one Dr. Zorba, a reclusive psychic investigator who spent some of his fortune chasing and collecting ghosts. In fact, his house has a number of them in residence already. Twelve, as a matter of fact, and soon there will be a thirteenth. But who will it come from? Cyrus? Mother Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp)? Older sister Medea (Jo Morrow)? Or the ghost story obsessed lad Buck? The sinister housekeeper Elain Zacharides (Margaret Hamilton) seems to know more than she says—Buck is convinced she’s a witch after all . . . However you slice it, danger looms in the Zorba house. Director/producer William Castle helms a charming little ghost story and sinister mystery about a likable (if mostly clueless) family who find themselves stuck owning a haunted house without any clue as to what to do with it. The result is 13 Ghosts (1960), a film where human evil lives on after death, and revenge is a dish best served with ectoplasm!

DANIEL’S TAKE

I have a soft spot for old horror flicks. I don’t mean the ones that came out in the 70s or 80s, either. 13 Ghosts is one of those films that manages to balance spooky stuff with a mystery and it stars a decent family unit of the Leave It to Beaver variety, which manages to take a couple of satiric pokes at that series and its values. The film carries a PG rating, which I don’t quite get. There’s nothing really objectionable here. I suppose death doesn’t have a place in a G-rated flick (well, outside of Bambi and several other Disney features from that era). Maybe the supernatural stuff freaked out ratings boards (This was back when comic books could no longer contain crime or horror elements, after all). Maybe the sinister human evil chugging along in the background made people uncomfortable. Who knows?

Producer William Castle was a man who liked to appear in shadow like Alfred Hitchcock, but he was much more geared toward pulpy endeavors than the master of suspense. His manner of pulp often included real world shticks for theaters to employ, such as seats that would shake members of the audience or a thumbs up/thumbs down card audience members would hold up to determine the fate of a film’s antagonist. For 13 Ghosts, there is an extended prologue about this flick’s gag. In it, Castle appears in an office setting (complete with a skeleton stenographer) to announce the Ghost Viewer, a little ghostly cardboard shape with two strips of film (one blue, one red) akin to the sorts of strips that would later come with Transformers toys (or which filled one eye hole or the other in old-school 3D glasses). At certain points in the picture, Castle advises, you will be instructed to use your ghost viewer. If you don’t believe in the supernatural he instructs you to use the blue film; if you are a believer, use the red. When gazed through at various points in the movie, the film will allow or prevent viewers seeing ghosts on screen. The triggers and the shift in film stock to blue with red effects overlays is still evident in home media editions, even though access to the film strips are not. The result is parts of the movie showing in a blue-tinged color with weird ghostly red effects overlaid. It’s charming, this effect. Imaginative. A bit hard to make out, but cute.

Those three descriptive terms—imaginative, charming, and kind of cute kind—sum up the whole movie experience. It’s a touch campy and therefore silly. It’s a touch suspenseful but not terribly scary to horror movie aficionados. Nevertheless, I find 13 Ghosts to be an entertaining romp. These days it would work as a family film or even, gasp, children’s movie (the protagonist is less the dad than it is the young son; he is proactive, while everyone else is pretty much reactive).

William Castle is not a producer on par with the incredible Val Lewton, nor will be ever be compared as a director in the league of Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, he made William Castle movies, which were geared to attract an audience (putting butts in the seats, not to be too crass), give them a little thrill, and then send them home grinning and gabbing about this scene, that character or the latest gimmick he employed. Although he will probably best be remembered for helming flicks starring Vincent Price, such as House on Haunted Hill (1968) or The Tingler (1959), or producing a work like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), 13 Ghosts succeeds admirably in these intentions. It is a light funhouse horror show.

The key to its successes are found in how it tackles the time period it was made in. The family manages not to fall into the EC Comics stereotypes of a henpecked husband or a shrewish wife or unloving children or even eeeevil ghosts. Instead, the husband is a forgetful chap who has best intentions at heart but is pretty ineffectual. He provides for the family, but they only have a couple of bucks in the bank. His wife is a fair mother, but she’s not a terribly capable homemaker. The kids are all right, though the boy has a morbid streak that does not abide with that era’s “accentuate the positive” social programming. The daughter is interested in more than boys and poodle skirts—in fact, she is the voice of the maternal in the film, telling her younger brother not to roller skate in the house and not to slide down the banister. It is an unusual flip side to the Father Knows Best shtick or the dutiful children and their always capable parents in Leave It to Beaver. The transgression is not necessarily in your face, it is subtle. However, Robb White’s screenplay certainly enjoys challenging social norms carrying over from the 50s (at least the norms that dominated popular media), and enjoys making the parents ultimately ineffectual and gives the kids the sense to survive.

The screenplay’s story is one that takes its time to build, balancing its shocks with a chance to see how the family operates. A pair of special glasses allow the characters to see spectral activity in the film, and whenever one of them dons these, the audience will inevitably be told to use their viewer. This makes the characters somewhat passive observers of some of the supernatural shenanigans. There is a vein of subtle humor here as well, including a killer casting of Margaret Hamilton as the spooky housekeeper—young Buck is certain she’s a witch, which she of course was. Margaret Hamilton played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939), after all. Maybe not a gut busting funny bit, but it made me chuckle in approval.

I suppose the ghosts themselves are the draw here. Alas, they are less individual characters with backstories we get in the film than they are sketches. A transparent figure in a chef’s cap and apron carries a meat cleaver that it drives down into the skull of a kissing ghoul ingénue. A lion and the headless tamer live in the basement. A skeleton dances and then erupts into flame. And then there is the ghost of the doctor himself, a revenant in search of some kind of revenge . . . Even when they are not visible thanks to the spooky ghost viewer, they lurk on screen, drawing candles out of holders to point the curious toward clues.

There is a mystery here and something of a ticking clock—twelve ghosts are present in the house from the word Boo!, and a thirteenth will join them before the final reel. So there’s that. However, a lingering matter about the uncle’s death hangs over the house as well. Was he the victim of foul play, and if so whodunit? These elements tick along in the background, as well. It is a surprisingly breezy little flick. The kind of thing that P. G. Wodehouse might have concocted if he had set his mind to penning a ghost story between Jeeves and Wooster novels.

Is it worth watching? I would say yes. It might not have set the world afire at the time or since its release. It probably will never end up in a Criterion Collection edition, but it is a fun little flick that is perfect October viewing. Great one for the kiddies and the young at heart. I had not seen it before throwing it into the mix this past September (I had only seen the hit-and-miss remake), and I was rather surprised with the thing. It tells its story, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and left me grinning like a kid.

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13 Ghosts is available in a couple of DVD, Blu-ray and streaming options. Hard discs are typically double feature or sets of multiple William Castle features. I have no regrets about owning it.

Next up, we will turn the clock forward forty years for the 2001 remake Thir13en Ghosts, starring Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Shannon Elizabeth, F. Murray Abraham and Matthew Lillard. That movie is available in DVD, Blu-ray and streaming editions.

“SHOCKtober Movies: 13 Ghosts” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still images are taken from IMDB.

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